Last week I attended a public debate on the proposition: It is the duty of government to educate its citizens. I was and am for the proposition, but the side arguing against the motion definitely made the better case for their point of view. It was a two-on-two debate, just like my recent debate over open source information, Thankfully, Chuck, one of the two debaters arguing against the motion, whom I know and spar with regularly, put up his opening speech on his site and what I want to do here is offer my critique of it.
Chuck begins his speech arguing that "duty" only applies to individuals:
To begin, I'd like to bring some clarity to the meaning of the proposition that we’re arguing against, which is that it's the duty of the government to educate its citizens. Regarding that proposition generally, it's important to note at the outset that the term “duty” is essentially a moral term that applies to individuals. Only in a metaphorical sense can the term be applied to the government.
With the crux of the debate over "duty" it is indeed important to say what we mean by the term. I'm skeptical of objective moral duties, but as I've written in the past, I think moral obligations and duties stem from one's self in adherence to principles, in addition to our various social contracts. But this means that it's important to identify what is the purpose of government. So what is it?
The purpose of government is to ensure the rights of its citizens are protected and defended by providing a police and military force, and a judicial system to adjudicate the law. Libertarians like Chuck would agree with that. But I think governments exist for more than that. In addition to police, military, and law, the purpose of the government is to protect its citizens against the harmful natural forces of unregulated markets. If a market is like a river, you need dams to regulate against droughts and floods that naturally happen in boom and bust cycles. A completely unregulated free market will inevitably result in increased concentrated wealth in the hands of a relatively few, and will leave millions at the bottom with little ability to climb the economic ladder. Government's purpose is to recognize that and provide the necessary regulations to prevent it. This isn't to go full on socialism. This is to allow the river to flow, but implement some common sense, rational checks and balances to ensure the river flows smoothly for the largest possible number of people. The US Constitution's preamble says one of the purposes of the US government is to "promote the general Welfare". This is to ensure the society runs smoothly.
If you agree with me, then you'll agree that it's government's duty to educate its citizens. The same logic applies. If one of the purposes of government is to protect its citizens against the harmful natural forces of unregulated markets, then it has a duty to ensure its citizens are properly educated. This is because a privatized educational free market will inevitably result in many of the poor not being able to afford education, and it enables institutions with zero concern for actual facts to teach children nonsense under the guise of "education." This will result increased illiteracy, decreased knowledge in math and science, and that will make Americans less competitive internationally. And families that are poor and whose children have special needs will be doubly hurt. That's why it's government's duty to educate it's citizens.
So the proposition,"it's the duty of government to educate its citizens," in reality translates to the proposition "it's the duty of every individual to pay for the education of his neighbor's children." In the moral realm, if one has a duty to pay for the education of his neighbor's children, then in the political realm it would follow that it would be a proper function of the government to compel each individual to perform such a duty.
Libertarians like Chuck think that taxation is the moral equivalent of theft. For a just government to take a percentage of your income in order to pay for the things that are needed for the country to run as best as possible, because the free market won't provide that, then taxation is justified. It's therefore the duty of every citizen to pay taxes to the government so it can perform its purpose, and if that purpose is (in part) to ensure its citizens are properly educated, then the government does have a right to tax you to pay for your neighbor's kid's education.
We oppose it on the grounds that, just as we all understand that slavery is immoral, in principle any proposition that involves forcing one man to work for the benefit of another, and against his own will, is immoral. We hold that all propositions of this kind are immoral, no matter what particular form they take. We hold that no one is born with an impersonal, unchosen obligation to work for the sake of others, regardless of their number, or their alleged needs.
There's no comparison to taxation and slavery, unless you're taxed at 100%, or a number so high you literally wouldn't be able to afford a living. I actually think the term "duty" here tends to be a bit of a red herring, despite being the topic at hand. I'm a bit more consequentialist in my thinking. I don't care about how beautiful your economic philosophy is. I care about what actually happens when it's put to practice. And privatizing all public education will inevitably result in higher illiteracy rates, and decreased levels of knowledge in math, science, and history. It will enable more religious fundamentalists to teach their children complete nonsense, enable more racist institutions to teach their kids hateful fringe philosophies like Nazism*, and allow various kinds of incompetent, deceptive, for-profit companies to do horrible jobs in teaching children facts, all with no fact based counter arguments from a public education, and with little to no government accountability.
I spoke with Chuck after the debate on the taxation issue when it comes to education. He said it's akin to the government giving you a crappy car subsidized by tax payers. You can technically buy a better private made car, but you're still forced to subsidize the crappy government car, even if you don't drive.
I'm open to the view that people who have kids, who make under a certain amount of income, and who want to put their kids into private school, could be allowed to not pay taxes for the public education of the district they're in because their kids would not be using the system. I'd set the amount of income relatively low, at maybe 20% above the median wage for the district. And they'd have to send their kids to a school that was certified by the government at meeting basic qualifications. That's a reasonable policy I'm open to.
So that's point one: no one has a duty to work to provide for the education of another.
The recurring theme here of course is that all taxation is theft. I simply disagree. I certainly feel a duty to pay for the services government provides that the "free market" will not be able to do via taxation.
Apart from this moral issue, there is the political question of whether it's proper for the government to play any role in education whatsoever. And to this question, our answer is an unequivocal "no!"
The reason is that education essentially consists of the dissemination of ideas. For exactly the same reason that we need a separation between church and state, likewise, we need a separation between the state and ideas. Just as it's improper for the government to attempt to compel one's agreement with a particular religion, it's likewise improper for the government to compel the dissemination of any particular set of ideas into the unformed minds of children.
Education is not essentially in the dissemination of ideas. It's in the dissemination of facts. It's to teach kids how to read, write, do math, learn history, science, and get a physical education. The one controversial subject would be social studies, which you learn things from an ideological bent. But what Chuck is doing is confusing that with all of what public education does.
So that's point two: it's the right of the parent, not the government, to choose which ideas are to be taught to one's own children.
Parents are not obligated to send their kids to public school. If they want to send them to private school and can afford it, they can.
In coercive education, the government forces one man to pay for another man's education.
In coercive education, the government determines which ideas to disseminate, whether you agree with them or not, and then forces you to pay for their dissemination.
In coercive education, the government decides how many years the students will attend, and then forces the students to attend.
So point three is that we want to remove coercion from education.
Chuck is not an anarchist, that means he believes in some government. And that means he believes the government has the right to determine which laws to create and enforce, whether or not he agrees with them or not. And the government has the right to determine how many years someone goes to prison for. So there's not much difference, really, between that and the government determining education policy. The main difference is that on his libertarian view, paying taxes is voluntary. But I'm skeptical that an all-voluntary system of taxes would be able to pay for his minimalist government. Many people won't pay it, and one could simply free load if others are voluntarily paying for it, and get all the same services. It wouldn't work.
If we remove coercion from education, many kids simply wouldn't go. And many private schools would push fact-free political and theological agendas, irreversibly indoctrinating children for life. "Facts" would splinter into the subjective realm, as they are now, only it would be far worse, since kids from an early age would be raised with "alternative facts" and never be confronted with the truth until adulthood, when their minds would've most likely hardened.
Finally, in this debate, we want you to stop thinking in abstract, impersonal terms such as "the public," "government duties" and the like. This issue concerns irreplaceable, individual lives, your lives, and the lives of those you love. Think about yourselves and your children, of what are your own interests and how to best achieve them.
Who is better to control your child's education? You, or a government bureaucrat?
Many poor people would not be able to afford good quality private education. In conservative religious parts of the country, faith schools with a theological agenda would dominate. If there weren't enough secular people, or people out of the dominant religion, there literally might be any schools for someone who didn't want their children going to the dominant religion's faith school. Public education allows this problem to disappear. So no, most parents would be better off having a pubic option. They can always send their kids to a private school if they can afford it.
Are you qualified to live free and think for yourselves, or not? Do you need a government bureaucrat to tell you what your child has to learn and how many years he has to spend learning it? Or are you qualified to determine what's in the best interest of your child, and love your child enough to provide it for him?
Yes I am qualified to think free. My ability to do so is partly due to my public education which taught me many of the things I know, like how to read and write. I also prefer to have fact based lessons taught in school so that we can all agree on the same truth, as opposed to having any school teach whatever they want as fact. A government run system of national standards can best do that. When I was in elementary school, my parents simply couldn't afford to send me to private schools, which in New York City are very expensive.** Even if they had no income tax to pay at all, they still wouldn't be able to afford it. So what would I have done? Stayed home all day? Watch Sesame Street? I was raised by a single mother who worked all day. Not having a free school to send me to would have been massively burdensome on her and me.
Conversely, do you think you are qualified to run other peoples lives, and tell them how to raise their children, using the threat of physical compulsion to enforce your demands? If not, then why would you ever consider granting such power to a government bureaucrat, who has no more right to run other people's lives than you do?
Actually I do think I'm qualified to run other people's lives and tell them how to raise their children, and if I could society would be a whole lot better. Believe me.
If you're a conservative, would you want Barack Obama controlling your child's education? If you're a progressive, would you want George Bush controlling your child's education? Would anyone want Donald Trump controlling their child's education? But this is exactly what government education means in practice: He who funds education controls education. We propose to bring both the funding, and the control of education, back to the parents with whom it belongs.
So long as an adherence to fact-based education is maintained, I don't mind a republican president making executive level decisions about education. Presidents don't control curriculum, but they do appoint secretaries of education who do make decisions on policies, programs, and activities at the federal level. The recent confirmation of DeVos is a disaster, as she wants to direct public money towards private charter schools, many of which will teach religion and nonsense at tax payers expense - in direct violation of the establishment clause. So of course there are concerns. We need constitutional watch dogs to monitor what she does. What we don't need is a fully privatized system.
So there's the philosophical argument about rights and duties, and then there's the practical argument about what's the best way to educate children. Clearly, a fully privatized free market approach won't work. That's why every advanced country has a public education system, and those that don't have higher poverty and illiteracy rates. It's true that the US ranks far below many advanced nations in test scores. This point was brought up by Chuck's debating partner. But in every country that out competes the US in test scores they have public education. This is therefore an argument for better public education, not no public education. Also, much of the problem public education faces, besides defunding, is in bad parenting, not necessarily the schools. Parents need to discipline their kids and get them to be interested in learning. I went to an inner-city public high school where many kids had no motivation to learn and interrupted the lesson. This made learning impossible. The teachers tried as they might, but sometimes to little avail. This is a big part of the problem.
*For the record, as a free speech fundamentalist I think if parents want to teach their kids Nazism, that is their right. If someone wants to open a private school to teach Nazism, that is their right. But privatizing schools will enable this to happen even more.
**Today in New York State, the average private school tuition is $9,592 for elementary schools, and $20,491 for high schools, according to privateschoolreview.com.